It only took me one day to read The Usurper by Rowena Cory Daniells. I gather there are a few more volumes to this series in the works, because a lot of loose ends have not yet been tied up, but the only series I think I read more quickly was Codex Alera by Jim Butcher (six books in a week).
The Usurper could've used a proofreader. Again there were a number of grammatical errors and this time, just some sentences that were incomplete or didn't make any sense. ("She both nodded." Seriously. What is that supposed to mean? I have a feeling something else was supposed to come after it.)
If you read The King's Bastard and The Uncrowned King, and could get over the unsophisticated writing style (with errors, and difficult problems too conveniently solved) you'll probably like this one too. Read my reviews of those (here and here).
Not much to say about this one that I haven't said before. I have no idea who the cover art is supposed to depict. Acolytes at the monasteries have that hairstyle (shaved, with a braid) but the guy on the cover is way too old to be an acolyte (also, they have tattoos all over their heads). And, no one in the novel is described as fighting with an axe, but there's an axe on the cover. (We see swords, bows with arrows, and staffs. Note: Daniells uses the word staff correctly. But I often see the word "stave" instead, which is really not the right word to use, as it means one of those long wooden slats from a barrel, not a long stick used as a weapon or support for walking. But I digress.)
It's still winter for most of this book; people don't seem to worry about the cold much, though. It's convenient for skating on the canals between locations, and for brushing snow to cover one's tracks. None of this worry about freezing to death which preoccupies J.V. Jones (A Cavern of Black Ice and sequels). Actually, I think there should be some sort of happy medium. People can't just run around without proper protective gear and spend the night in snow caves without ever getting frostbite. Nor do we (as in Jones) need to be treated to all the excruciating details of protection from the cold. But no worries, it should be about spring in the next book.
Some storylines were dropped here. In the second book of the series, Byren is starting to show Affinity, and to bond with a pack of ulfrs (that word does not have enough vowels!). But that is almost completely absent here. Wish it wouldn't have been, as I found it interesting. The only thing is, that Byren frequently interposes himself between Orrade, whose developing Affinity is to be kept hidden, and mystics, who should be able to sense Orrade's Affinity. But Byren is also developing Affinity, and I don't know how he would keep this hidden from the mystics.
Sometimes I just think it's convenient for Daniells to "forget" things she's said before. We spend a good deal of the time, in this book and the last, with Byren traveling around the countryside, ostensibly in disguise. But no one has any trouble figuring out who he is. We are told that it's only Piro, Byren's little sister, who studied playacting with their mother, and that Byren is a bad actor. But later, when Byren needs to sneak into a fort so he can open the doors for his allies, we are told that Piro was not the only one who studied acting. So which is it? He studied acting, or he didn't? I guess whatever advances the story at the time...
I am a little more satisfied with Piro's ending than I thought I would be. She goes off to an island with the mage's apprentice, Tyro (who also happens to be Lord Dunstany from The Uncrowned King). She doesn't have to marry, and she doesn't have to go to the abbey. Neither of which she wanted. Maybe I couldn't figure out what she did want, in the first novel of this series, because she didn't have a third option. Now she does, and she chooses it. I think the attempt to get Piro to argue with Tyro is an attempt to build sexual tension and that these two will eventually end up romantically linked together.
Palatyne meets his end, and while I'm actually kind of satisfied that it's not Byren, Fyn, or Piro that kills him (it's Isolt's pet wyvern), he never did much for me as a character. His motivation was too obvious, and he was just too evil. He kills King Rolen under a truce flag, he kills Queen Myrella, he's got his evil mage controlling King Merofyn, he wants to rape Isolt before the wedding, he wants to destroy all of Rolen's children and take over the world.
Too many of the characters are too one-sided in these books, or else manipulated into being evil and/or suspicious and/or weak. Byren, even though he internally grapples with Orrade's declared love for him, feels guilt for not being good enough, for not being loyal enough, continues to try to prove himself even though no one asks it of him. Swears he'll marry to cement his country's alliances, though we're clearly being led to believe that there is a mutual attraction between Byren and Florin. Although Byren -- and some other characters -- seem to think that Florin and Orrade are developing a relationship. Even though we've been reminded, time and again, that Orrade is gay.
Fyn and Tyro come off a little better. Fyn keeps secrets, and sneaks into places he isn't supposed to be, and lies to cover up his involvement with less-than-savory individuals. Tyro manipulates Piro by lying to her about trapping her essence in a piece of amber (I figured out in the previous novel that this was fake), but ends up having a good heart (letting in the refugees). And any hard-heartedness on his part is sort of swept under the rug because he's under a lot of stress, trying to be three people at once (since he can change his appearance).
There are a couple of convenient coincidences that irritate me here. One of the sailors in Fyn's company buys a caul which is supposed to protect him from drowning. It's a really weird thing to do. Why is an experienced sailor suddenly worrying about drowning? But later, when we think Orrade has drowned, he turns up again. Turns out he was born with a caul. Which apparently also leads one to develop Affinity later in life. So Byren's guilt over using an Affinity healer on Orrade in volume one is assuaged, because of the caul, since Orrade would've developed affinity anyway. It just seems too deliberate and fabricated, to me. Like this little detail about the sailor's purchase was inserted later, as an afterthought, so that Orrade could be miraculously saved from drowning.
I have heard there are multiple additional volumes planned for this series. I don't really see how there is enough material for more than one, but I could be wrong, of course. (What I see is Byren retaking the throne of Rolencia, getting married to someone, and relaxing his father's restrictions on Affinity-users. And of course, Cobalt getting his due.)
Just to end on a positive note, I usually hate visions and dreams in fantasy novels. Or prophecies, or anything like that. Because what follows is an attempt by the author to follow the predictions slavishly. Visions are not so clear-cut in Daniells's books, and events track somewhat with the visions, but don't always turn out the way the vision predicted. It's a refreshing change of pace from the usual fare in fantasy literature.
Anyway, that's my opinion. Take it or leave it. If you didn't mind the first two volumes, you'll be fine with this one. If you hated the first book, you probably didn't read the second and you wouldn't be interested in the third. (This is not a standalone and is not the proper place to start reading this series.)